Singapore is the anomaly of Southeast Asia: everything is expensive, high tech and functional, and clean. Even the legal tender is clean! Every single place that gave us change handed over crisp, unwrinkled new bills. But the clearest indication we aren’t in Southeast Asian Kansas anymore: there are no tuk-tuks! And as if we needed further proof that the western world has its influence on Singapore…we spotted a tanning salon!
From the get-go we were impressed with the competence level of just about everyone here. Immigration is seamless, incredibly fast and at one of the busiest airports in the world no less. They even provide mints and hard candies while you wait, which you don’t. And then after you make it through there is a machine with a five second survey on your immigration experience.
Cabs are efficient, with green “taxi” signs on top that change to a red “hired” when occupied. Even the chicken satay sticks at the mall are affixed to a machine that rotates and dips them in sauce for perfectly even distribution. You use a vending machine to pay for your haircut! And the WiFi works! We did in perhaps a few hours what it took us days to do elsewhere. Heaven sent because we’d been in the painstaking process of trying to upload photos to the cloud on slow third-world WiFi so that Jenni can use her computer which is now full to the brim.
Part of why everything is so efficient, orderly and highly functional: there are rules in Singapore. For instance, there is no gum sold in the entire country. Spitting is not allowed. Failure to flush a public toilet can result in a steep fine. There is not much traffic because the government limits the number of vehicle registrations that are available at any one time. It’s a nation run almost like a business. See the following examples:
And they are enforced strictly.
Our good friend (who shall not be named, only referred to by the pseudonym S. Goldberg), made the most perfect analogy of Singapore. Well, he made several. And we haven’t been able to come up with a better way to explain it. His words: Singapore is a real life SimCity, Disneyland (we even heard that buildings are required to emit insect repellant so this tropical former swamp stays mosquito-free!) or peaceful North Korea. This is about as accurate a comparison as we can imagine, though we did find ourselves trying to put our finger on what exactly Singapore reminded us of. The city is decidedly modern and westernized and it boasts a rather spectacular skyline. It’s very unlike pretty much all the rest of Southeast Asia, as noted above. In ways it’s a lot like Miami, it’s hot and humid and a big city with tall buildings. But it definitely lacks that Miami flavor. In a lot of ways Singapore is similar to Los Angeles, with its clean, wide streets, new buildings and shiny happy people. But only if Los Angeles were the Grove or the 3rd Street Promenade (Los Angeles outdoor malls) everywhere. And if the Wilshire Corridor spanned the entirety of the Westside (hello, skyscrapers with rooftop pools!). It even had a little bit of a tropical answer to Savannah, what with its big beautiful trees lining the roads like live oaks.
I’m not going to lie, we had to do some googling on Singapore to figure out what the deal with a city-state is. There are about five million people living here, many of whom are expats, and it’s multi-cultural in a way that you don’t see too often outside the United States. Singapore has its own government, its own military. It is represented in the UN and competes in the Olympics (well I think just the summer Olympics, but according to Wikipedia they made a bid to compete in Sochi and can’t figure out if that panned out), but it covers a space of only about 275 square miles, there is no such thing as a “domestic” airport, and you have to use your passport to get out of the city for a weekend! Despite being the smallest country we’ve visited on this trip so far, it’s by far the most livable (if you like a western style of living). And it’s the first place we’re going on this trip with a higher GDP per capita than the US (per IMF). Not surprisingly, it’s the first place we’ve been in Southeast Asia where we drank tap water without fear.
There are a lot of expats here, but not so many Americans (probably because we are the only nation that taxes our citizens no matter where they’re residing and hence Americans can’t reap the full benefits of reduced taxation without renouncing citizenship). It’s easy to see how a Brit or Aussie could call this place home. It’s incredibly safe and you have the modern amenities of a western city, but with consistently warm weather (tropical, hot, humid weather, but it’s never cold), a diverse population and lots of green space.
Singapore is culturally mixed, primarily with Malay, Chinese and Indians. And not surprisingly all of these cultures are well represented architecturally and gastronomically throughout the city. There are several hawker stands dispersed throughout. These range in shininess – from the more typical Southeast Asian style stalls in Chinatown to what is essentially a mall food court in the basements along Orchard Road. We tried them both: decent Chinese food at the overwhelming and hectic Chinatown Complex, where we were the only non-Asians in sight, and nasi padang and a rather impressive Korean kimchi noodle soup in the polished basement of the Takashimaya mall. Something we discovered in Penang is also common around Singapore and we’re fast becoming big fans: barley drinks. So refreshing. The Asians like to chew their drinks huh? Boba tea, grass jelly tea, barley drink…we’re liking it.
There are also western-style restaurants everywhere, and we took advantage of this opportunity to enjoy cheeseburgers for the first time since leaving the US. Though be aware that coffee is absurdly overpriced here. $6+ iced coffees?! What’s up with that?
There are several neighborhoods throughout the city with good food, shopping and entertainment on offer. And they are somewhat easily accessible via foot (if you don’t mind sweating in that hot hot humid heat) and the MTR. We walked much of what we saw in one day, so it’s quite manageable, and we only took the MTR once, mostly to say we did, and also because Jenni couldn’t stop complaining about the heat. It’s nice and clean and air-conditioned in there. On par with Hong Kong for transport, even matching the extra fast station escalators.
Robinson Quay by the river is a lovely spot to dine or imbibe alfresco. It reminded Jenni a bit of the waterfront restaurants in Melbourne. We ate a handful of meals here. Further down the river is Clarke Quay, which had a very Grove feel to it, albeit on the water.
Orchard Road is a shopper’s paradise with mall after eight-story mall. Don’t expect great deals though, my suspicions that absolutely everything costs more in Singapore were confirmed when I popped into Forever 21 and discovered even they charge prices two to three times what you’d see in the states.
Little India is definitely a toned-down version of the sub-continent, but there are still lots of colors, great Indian food, and a bit of Bollywood music. Memories of India flooded back, and we savored our first tastes of Indian food since leaving Varanasi more than a month ago. Oh how we missed that spicy goodness. India over-stimulates in just about every respect, but we aren’t complaining about the taste bud invigoration. Jenni eased her paratha withdrawal pains at Komala Vilas, a delicious veg food spot with superb parathas and other savory Indian dishes.
We meandered around this area for a while, checking out the shophouses on Decker Street (though to the untrained eye these did not seem all that different from the shophouses on the other streets?). There are also a lot of cheaper hotels and hostels in this area. We were surprised by signs prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in Little India from Saturday morning until Monday morning. Only later did we learn this stems from the riots that broke out in early December. We were also surprised to learn that Singapore otherwise has a fairly lenient policy towards booze. Walk around Robertson Quay and you might find groups of youngsters drinking on the sidewalk.
The Arab Street area (aka Kampong Glam?) has a nice collection of Middle Eastern restaurants (solid selection of Turkish, Iranian, Egyptian etc. If only we hadn’t just eaten, we would have ordered the borek at Derwish for sure) and shops, with a concentration on the pedestrian-only Bussorah Street that is anchored at one end by the Masjid Sultan. Nearby Haji Lane had some eclectic cafes and bars, as well. Informative plaques are displayed, and we learned that: “Up to the late 1970s, Singapore was where Muslim pilgrims in Southeast Asia would gather to prepare for their journey and board the ships to take them to Jeddah or back home after the haj. Kampong Glam, in particular Bussorah Street, was where many of these pilgrims gathered.”
Marina Bay and its surrounding environs are full of nice hotels and pricy restaurants. From Esplande Drive and One Fullerton there is a great view of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino and Singapore’s part mermaid/part lion mascot: the Merlion. Pause in the underpass near the War Memorial if you want to see a hodge-podge collection of Singapore’s youth breakdancing and performing traditional Indian dance.
We visited Marina Bay Sands one evening with our friend Swimmy. He was a fabulous host, and after stuffing our faces with some fantastic garlic bamboo clams and chili crab at No Signboard Seafood in Geylang, we partied like rockstars with some Singapore Slings (obvs) at the rooftop bar. Not a bad view from this spot I tell you.
Chinatown is quite the happening spot, despite that we were there on a Sunday when many of the brick and mortar bars and restaurants were closed. Still, we got to check out Ann Siang Hill (which was clove and nutmeg plantations not so long ago), meander down Club Street, and be super mature tourists stopping to take a photo of this place:
There are a handful of impressive temples over in this part of town, including Thian Hock Keng (Hokkien) and a Hindu temple (Sri Mariamman) reminiscent of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, albeit a fraction the size.
Valentine’s Day seems to be a really big deal here, with promotions everywhere. Jenni got a free rose with her morning latte and it totally made her day. After a day full of blogging we snuck in a little romance with a dinner and chocolate lava cake at Wine Connection at Robertson Quay.
Our last night in town we met one of Alan’s friends from his Latham NY days for drinks at eM By the River. It was great to catch up and learn more about Singapore’s quirks from an expat. Among many other interesting facts, Matt confirmed what we had heard from our Airbnb hosts: Singapore apartments are required to have bomb shelters, and some residents have Filipino maids that live in these tiny spaces. He also mentioned a documentary that I think is called “Meet the Natives – England and USA.” The idea is to take our traditional notion of anthropology and flip it, i.e. tribesmen from remote South Pacific villages travel to observe people in the US and England. Sounds fascinating!
Though we did not purchase a SIM card, I read that the major carriers are SingTel, StarHub and M1. WiFi is not quite as ubiquitous as expected (though it is generally fast and reliable where it’s available). Of course ATMs are widely available and credit cards are accepted most places, though some have a higher minimum than you might guess. If you plan to spend a lot of time here, check out NETS.
Look into whether you need your passport to enter a casino here, as Singapore limits the gambling of its own citizens.
The exchange rate was roughly 1 USD = 1.27 SGD. We use simply “$” for Singapore Dollars throughout.
Transportation: Changi International Airport is quite the hub, with non-stop flights to almost everywhere. Immigration was the smoothest we’ve ever experienced. We took a taxi from the official queue to our Airbnb apartment on River Valley Grove. In the early afternoon, it took 20-30 minutes and cost $21.
Depending on where you stay, this is a very walkable city. Public buses and trains have a great reputation, especially the MRT. As with most non-US cities, train fares vary by distance and you need your ticket to exit. There are several different train lines so you may need to change. Little India, Orchard Road (at Dhoby Ghaut), Clarke Quay and Chinatown are popular areas all next to each other on the purple North-East line. The only time we took the train was one-stop from Dhoby Ghaut to Little India. Each ticket was $1.30, of which $0.10 was the card deposit. And remember, no durians on the train!
Taxis are very inexpensive compared to most US cities for long distances, though this is less true for short distances due to high flag drops and extra fees. Taxis are plentiful, though when we tried to hail one at 7:15 pm on Thursday to Geylang we were denied by at least three…I think it had to with shift-change time, but Jenni is a pretty intimidating passenger.
A taxi from our apartment to the airport at 9:10 am on Tuesday morning took half an hour and cost $22. There is free WiFi at the airport though you may need the ability to receive a code via SMS. If you don’t have a mobile for this, ask someone to help you.
Accommodation: Lodging is very expensive relative to the rest of Southeast Asia. We opted last minute to go with an Airbnb spot given the price hikes as a result of the Airshow coinciding with our visit. The quality of moderately priced hotels and hostels even over $100 a night (and their pathetic reviews online) made us very pleased to be able to stay at a modern condo with private bathroom, laundry, a gym and a rooftop pool with views of the Marina Bay Sands for about the same price. Our hosts were super friendly and even provided bath products, Evian water and chocolates on our bed! While there are hotels that are a little closer to the action, we enjoyed this opportunity to see what life might be like as an expat living in Singapore.
There are many luxury properties here. While we did not see a room, the Marina Bay Sands certainly has an amazing rooftop pool and bar. If you are looking for more budget accommodation, there are hostels and cheaper hotels in Little India, Bugis and Chinatown. Gallery Hotel, where we had drinks at eM bar, enjoys a nice location.
Food and Drinks: There is very good and ethnically diverse food in Singapore. Restaurants tend to be expensive (and note that 7% GST and 10% service may be added to the bill), with much cheaper meals available from food courts and hawker stalls. Alcohol is costly due to high taxation. Many places have happy hour deals, but this means something like $6-10 for beer or a glass of wine…don’t expect a shot and a Tecate for $3. Starbucks and Coffee Bean are common.
We did not hear about Dempsey Hill until our last night when it was too late to visit, but this converted British army camp sounds worth checking out. I think it is near the Botanic Gardens so combining the two sounds like a lovely afternoon/evening.
No Signboard Seafood is famous for its chili crab and bamboo clams with garlic. We dined at the original in Geylang, a huge place and an experience. Order lots of fried bread to soak up the chili crab sauce. It is expensive.
Malls often have food courts in the basement levels. We ate lunch at Takashimaya where options included Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Korean and more. Meals were $4-8. Chinatown has multiple food centers, most of which were closed on Sunday. The Chinatown Complex was open, and it was overwhelming up on that second floor! So many different stalls, mainly Chinese but also Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, etc. Cendol and ice kacang (which we discussed in our Penang post) are here. Jenni’s katsu don cost $4.50 and my soya sauce chicken noodles cost $2.50. I actually ordered chicken claw and was relieved to hear they had run out.
Little India has some food stands and proper restaurants. We ate at Komala Vilas (there appear to be multiple) on Race Course Road and it was very good and cost $16. The Arab Street area has lots of Middle Eastern food, including some 24-hour options. Check out the intersection of Bussorah Street and Baghdad Street, as well as Haji Lane.
There are tons of options around Marina Bay and Clarke Quay. Closer to our temporary home, Killiney Road has a handful of spots. Freshly Baked’s $3.50 iced coffee was the cheapest I saw. Artisan Boulangerie Compagnie has no WiFi but fairly good food and coffee. Killiney Kopitiam is popular for coffee and kaya toast.
We spent a lot of time in the Robertson Quay area as it was nearby and very pleasant. Boomarang is an open-air Aussie bar that made a nice place to watch the US defeat Russia in Olympic hockey. My wagyu burger with bacon and egg was $30, a steep price but it satisfied my craving. Jenni’s spiced lamb pizza for $18 was very good, and a bucket (5) of San Miguel beers was $40.
Ginza Lion was fine, the portion of chicken wings was large for the price. Wine Connection Tapas Bar & Bistro was happening on V-Day and pretty good. eM at the Gallery Hotel is a great spot for relaxed after dinner drinks.
Raffles is a classic luxury hotel. We tried to do high tea but it was fully booked, so be sure to reserve in advance. The menu at the restaurant looked great but was mega-expensive…like $198 for the degustation plus $138 for four glasses of paired wines.
Activities: There is quite a bit to do here. Visit the Singapore Zoo, which also has a bird park, river safari and night safari. The Singapore Botanic Garden is free, though I think you have to pay a little for the Orchid Garden. There is also Gardens by the Bay at Marina Bay, and Jenni’s friend suggested you can get in free to the flower dome if you have a drink at Pollen Bar.
Walk around Chinatown, Marina Bay, Little India, Arab Street, Clarke Quay, Robertson Quay, etc. There is a War Memorial monument and little park across from Raffles, a destination in its own right whether for a drink, high tea or just to see the grounds.
We did not make it to Sentosa Island, but Resorts World Casino is there along with Universal Studios and a Hard Rock hotel. It is said to be a party place.
Should you need a haircut in Singapore, QB House is on level B3 of the 313@Somerset shopping complex. It costs only $12 (paid to a machine, exact change only). Plus they have this vacuum contraption to remove those prickly cut hairs before you get up.
February 12-18, 2014 (Wednesday-Tuesday)